Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Spring 1986

Volume 12 Issue 3
    • 468Wayne C. Booth
    • At my university we never stop reforming the curriculum, and we’re now discussing the plurality of ways in which our students fulfill our requirement of a full year of “freshman humanities.” Some of us feel that we now provide too many ways: neither students nor faculty members can make a good defense of a requirement—in itself an expression of power, if you will—that leads to scant sharing of readings or subject matters for the students, and to no goals or methods clearly shared by increasingly diverse faculty members. As we attack and defend this kind of flabby pluralism, we naturally find ourselves discussing other kinds of pluralism, and we begin to discover the true depth of a topic that may at first seem “merely practical.” There may be some nouns that can be joined to the phrase “in the classroom” without taking on a total theory of education: Shakespeare in the classroom; Romanticism in the classroom; perhaps even irony in the classroom. But when we try to discuss “pluralism in the classroom,” we throw into the discussion every belief we may have about what education should be and how it should be conducted. To ask whether or in what sense we should be pluralists in the classroom is obviously to ask, in the most fundamental way possible, “What should a teacher teach? What should we hope that every student would learn, regardless of our commitment to this or that doctrine of the moment?”

      Most teachers, even in a time like ours when professed relativists pluralists abound, answer that question, at least implicitly, like this: One should try very hard to teach the truth—not a “dogma,” of course, perhaps not even a set of propositions, but at least some single right away of doing things. Indeed in some moods any honest teacher might confess to feeling lucky if students learn even one truth or one mode of working. “They’ll meet plenty of plurality just in the nature of their lives.” “They’ll meet plenty of other teachers, most of them with absolutely mistaken views, and my chief task is to set them straight so that when they encounter nonsense they’ll know how to deal with it.” Still, when you press people who talk that way they of course claim that they teach no dogmas, only an appropriately open-minded way of dealing with error in the world. They may even call themselves pluralists or relativists. But it takes no great analytical skill to detect the monisms behind their claims. When pushed, they believe that they hold=--or might someday find—some one way of working, some supremely powerful “killer mode” that can dispose of all other modes with decisive proofs. They work finally in one way only, pursuing, finally, one kind of truth.

      See also: Wayne C. Booth, Irony and Pity Once Again: "Thaïs" Revisited

      Wayne C. Booth is George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English and of Ideas and Methods at the university of Chicago. His previous works on pluralism include Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism (1979) and “Pluralism and Its Rivals” in Now Don’t Try to Reason with Me (1970). He is now completing a book on ethical criticism.

    • 480Hayden White
    • It is as if [W. J. T.] Mitchell, who in his stance as a literary theorist is willing to admit of a plurality of equally legitimate critical modes, were unwilling to extend this pluralism to the consideration of history itself. By this I do not mean that he would be unwilling to view the history of criticism as a cacophony or polyphony of contending critical positions, as a never=ending circle of critical viewpoints, with no one of them being able finally to declare itself the winner for all time, but rather that he must feel that this is the only legitimate perspective on that history. Such a perspective on history has a name, and it is historicism—the perspective associated with Ranke and Goethe in Friedrich Meinecke’s great book on this subject, the perspective which, in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, is identified with the fate of literary realism in the West. Although the name given to this perspective by Meinecke suggests that it is the historical perspective, contemporary historical theory and practice deny it that claim. In point of fact, if we look at contemporary historical theory and practice, we must admit that there are as many perspectives on history as there are modes of critical practice in literary studies. And this for a very good reason: the referent of the term “history” is as indeterminable, is as much a matter of principled contestation, as the term “literature” (or for that matter, “philosophy” or “science”) itself. So that, if one wished to “correct” certain critical positions by reminding their proponents of the necessity of a proper “sense of history,” it would be just as legitimate to correct the corrector by reminding him that the history of historiography displays the same kind of confusion over the “sense of history” that the history of criticism displays over the “sense of literature.” When Mitchell characterizes the current schism in criticism as another enactment of the quarrel of ancients and moderns, he is surely right; but he fails to note that this reenactment takes place within an atmosphere made more murky by the fact that there is no generally agreed upon “sense of history” to which one can appeal in order to characterize the differences between the two camps. It is not as if the ancients and the moderns agree on some body of fact from which they draw different implications regarding the attitude that one ought to assume vis-à-vis modern as against ancient literature. For what is at issue is not the interpretation of the facts but the nature of historical factuality itself.

      See also: Hayden White, The Narrativization of Real Events  ·  Wayne C. Booth, M. H. Abrams: Historian as Critic, Critic as Pluralist

      Hayden White is Presidential Professor of Historical Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “Historical Interpretation” (September 1982), “The Narrativization of Real Events” (Summer 1981), and “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” (Autumn 1980).

    • 494W. J. T. Mitchell
    • It may seem a bit perverse to argue that pluralism is a kind of dogmatism, since pluralists invariably define themselves as antidogmatists. Indeed, the world would seem to be so well supplied with overt dogmatists—religious fanatics, militant revolutionaries, political and domestic tyrants—that it will probably seem unfair to suggest that the proponents of liberal, tolerant, civilized open-mindedness are guilty of a covert dogmatism. My only excuse for engaging in this exercise is that it may help to shake up some rather firmly fixed ideas about dogmatism held by those who advocate some version of pluralism. Dogmatism, I want to argue, has had a very had press, some of it deserved, some of it based in misunderstandings and ignorance. Much of that bad press stems, I will suggest, from the dominance of pluralism as an intellectual ideology since the Enlightenment. If “dogmatism” is a synonym for irrationality, infelixibility, and authoritarianism, the fault lies as much with pluralism as it does with any actual dogmatism. I’d like to begin, therefore, with a definition of dogmatism that comes, not from its pluralist foes, but from a historian of religion who treats it as a fairly neutral term, describing a complex and ancient feature of social institutions. This definition comes from E. Royston Pike’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Religions:

      DOGMA (Gk., ordinance). A religious doctrine that is to be received on authority—whether of a Divine revelation, a Church Council, Holy Scripture, or a great and honoured religious teacher—and not, at least in the first instance, because it may be proved true in the light of reason. Almost always there is associated with dogma the element of Faith. The term comes from the Greek word for “to seem,” and it meant originally that which seems true to anyone, i.e. has been approved or decided beyond cavil. In the New Testament it is applied to decisions of the Christian church in Jerusalem, enactments of the Jewish law, and imperial decrees, all of which were things to be accepted without argument. A little later it had come to mean simple statements of Christian belief and practice; and it was not until the 4th century, when the heretics were showing how far from simple the basic Christian beliefs really were, that it acquired the meaning of a theological interpretation of a religious fact. Then came the division of the Church into a Western and an Eastern branch, and never again was it possible to frame a dogma that might be universally held. The 39 Articles of the Church of England, the principles deduced from Calvin’s “Institutes” and John Wesley’s “Sermons,” and the items that compose the Mormon creed may all be classed as dogmas.1

      See also: W. J. T. Mitchell, Critical Inquiry and the Ideology of Pluralism

      W. J. T. Mitchell, editor of Critical Inquiry, is professor of English and a member of the Committee on Art and Design at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology.

    • 503Ihab Hassan
    • Postmodernism once more—that breach has begun to yawn! I return to it by way of pluralism, which itself has become the irritable condition of postmodern discourse, consuming many pages of both critical and uncritical inquiry. Why? Why pluralism now? This question recalls another that Kant raised two centuries ago—“Was heist Aufklärung?”—meaning, “Who are we now?” The answer was a signal meditation on historical presence, as Michel Foucault saw.1 But to meditate on that topic today—and this is my central claim—is really to inquire ‘Was heist Postmodernismus?

      Pluralism in our time finds (if not founds) itself in the social, aesthetic, and intellectual assumptions of postmodernism—finds its ordeal, its rightness, there. I submit, further, that the critical intentions of diverse American pluralists—M. H. Abrams, Wayne Booth, Kenneth Burke, Matei Calinescu, R. S. Crane, Nelson Goodman, Richard McKeon, Stephen Pepper, not to mention countless other artists and thinkers of our moment—engage that overweening query, “What is postmodernism?,” engage and even answer it tacitly. In short, like a latter-day M. Jourdain, they have been speaking postmodernism all their lives without knowing it.

      But what is postmodernism? I can propose no rigorous definition of it, any more than I could define modernism itself. For the term has become a current signal of tendencies in theater, dance, music, art, and architecture; in literature and criticism; in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and historiography; in cybernetic technologies and even in the sciences. Indeed, postmodernism has now received the bureaucratic accolade of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in the form of a Summer Seminar for College Teachers; beyond that, it has penetrated the abstractions of “late” Marxist critics who, only a decade ago, dismissed postmodernism as another instance of the dreck, fads, and folderol of a consumer society. Clearly, then, the time has come to theorize the term, if not define it, before it fades from awkward neologism to derelict cliché without ever attaining to the dignity of a cultural concept.


      1. “Maybe the most certain of all philosophical problems is the problem of the present time, of what we are, in this very moment,” writes Michel Foucault in “The Subject and Power,” reprinted as “Afterword” in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, ed. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (Chicago, 19820, p. 210. The essay also appeared in Critical Inquiry 8 (Summer 1982): 777-96.

      See also: Hayden White, The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation

      Ihab Hassan is Vilas Research Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. He is the author of, among other books, Radical Innocence (1961), The Dismemberment of Orpheus (1971), Paracriticisms (1975), and The Right Promethean Fire (1980). His latest work, Out of Egypt, is forthcoming in 1986.

    • 521Bruce Erlich
    • Immanuel Kant might have stated the central and urgent problem facing contemporary literary theory as the need to seek a path between dogmatism and skepticism. We confront today a multiplicity of critical methods, each filling books and journals with no doubt convincing arguments for its correctness. If we cling to one, denying others possess truth, we are dogmatists; if, however, we grant that two or three or all are equally true, we admit that each is at the same time false in relation to the others’ truth, and so we are skeptics. The “dogmatic employment” of reason, Kant noted, “lands us in dogmatic assertions to which other assertions, equally specious, can always be opposed-that is, in scepticism.”1

      Into this professional breach steps “pluralism” (a term the reader should assume throughout is in quotation marks), claiming it can vindicate sharply limited patterns of reading which nonetheless allow for diversity in the relation of word to idea and, so, of interpreting reader to text. This would make it possible to encompass within a single theory the insights which both camps (those with one truth, those with many) find in their positions. Clearly, this entices.

      But do we really understand what pluralism is, if it is at all? Its critical practice already exists—this essay grew from a 1984 conference which sought possible intellectual “foundations” of that practice—but how are these practitioners to understand what they do? Pluralism’s philosophic pedigree may have been neatly sketched by Nelson Goodman (who, however, does not use the term) as the tradition

      That began when Kant exchanged the structure of the world for the structure of the mind, continued when C. I. Lewis exchanged the structure of the mind for the structure of concepts, and that now proceeds to exchange the structure of concepts for the structure of the several symbols systems of the sciences, philosophy, the arts, perception, and everyday discourse. The movement is from unique truth and a world fixed and found to a diversity of right and even conflicting versions of world in the making.2


      1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York, 1965), p. 57; all further references to this work, abbreviated CPR, will be included in the text.

      2. Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis, 1978), p. x. Since Lewis is not often classified among pluralists, I support Goodman by calling attention to Pepper having been Lewis’ student and to Lewis’ observation that he and Pepper “have been, so to say, continuously aware of each other, and of a common background of thought…. I should like to think that our respective views, both in theory of value and in ethics, are mutually supplementary rather than rival theories” (“The Philosopher Replies,” in The Philosophy of C. I. Lewis, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp [La Salle, Ill., 1968], pp. 670-71). Numerous essays from this volume (include one by Pepper) are useful for situating Lewis.

      See also: M. H. Abrams, The Deconstructive Angel

      Bruch Erlich is associate professor of English and modern languages at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln where he teaches comparative literature and literary theory. He has published on Shakespeare, Walter Benjamin, and intellectual history and is preparing a book on cognitive universals in tension with the experience of historical change, Unintelligible Limits: Time, meaning, and a Hermeneutic of Suffering.

    • 550Ellen Rooney
    • The practical difficulties that trouble any effort to discuss “pluralism” in American literary studies can be glimpsed in the following exchange. In a 1980 interview in the Literary Review of Edinburgh, Ken Newton put this question to Derrida:

      It might be argued that deconstruction inevitably leads to pluralist interpretation and ultimately to the view that any interpretation is as good as any other. Do you believe this and how do you select some interpretations as being better than others?

      Derrida replied:

      I am not a pluralist and I would never say that every interpretation is equal but I do not select. The interpretations select themselves. I am a Nietzschean in that sense. You know that Nietzsche insisted on the fact that the principle of differentiation was in itself selective. The eternal return of the same was not repetition, it was a selection of the more powerful forces. So I would say that some are more powerful than others. The hierarchy is between forces and not between true and false.1­­

      The irony of Newton’s identification of pluralism with the very interpretive irresponsibility that it accuses others—Derrida foremost among them—of embracing is certainly not lost on those critics who call themselves pluralists; it comes as no surprise to them that Derrida declines to join their company. Nevertheless, the breezy gloss of pluralism as “the view that any interpretation is as good as any other” is bound to seem plausible to the large numbers of readers for whom the word denotes a generalized tolerance the refusal of dogmatism. That Derrida should be called upon to dissociate himself from pluralism is in fact symptomatic of the profound confusion surrounding the term. At present, the pervasiveness of such loose talk compels pluralists to defend themselves regularly against this kind of misinterpretation. Thus, the colloquial reading of pluralism that construes it as mere relativism, the absence of principled constraints, is frequently acknowledged, if only to be rejected. Even Bruch Erlich must emphasize that pluralism does not want “a totally free critical market, for that involves the proliferation of a hundred flowers, what Booth dismissively terms ‘chaotic warfare.’ ”2


      1. James Kearn and Ken Newton, “An Interview with Jacques Derrida,” Literary Review 14 (18 Apr.-1 May 1980), p.21.

      2. Bruce Erlich, “Amphibolies: On the Critical Self-Contradictions of ‘Pluralism,’ ” this volume, p. 527; all further references to this essay will be included in the text.

      See also: Wayne C. Booth, “Preserving the Exemplar": Or, How Not to Dig Our Own Graves

      Ellen Rooney teaches English and women’s studies at Brown University. She is currently at work on a study entitled Seductive Reasoning: Pluralism and the Problematic of General Persuasion.

    • 564Nelson Goodman and Catherine Z. Elgin
    • Predictions concerning the end of the world have proven less reliable than your broker’s recommendations or your fondest hopes. Whether you await the end fearfully or eagerly, you may rest assured that it will never come—not because the world is everlasting but because it has already ended, if indeed it ever began. But we need not mourn, for the world is indeed well lost, and with it the stultifying stereotypes of absolutism: the absurd notions of science as the effort to discover a unique, prepackaged, but unfortunately undiscoverable reality, and of truth as agreement with that inaccessible reality. All notions of pure givenness and unconditional necessity and of a single correct perspective and system of categories are lost as well.


      If there is no such thing as the world, what are we living in? The answer might be “A world” or, better, “Several worlds.” For to deny that there is any such thing as the world is no more to deny that there are worlds than to deny that there is any such thing as the number between two and seven is to deny that there are numbers between two and seven. The task of describing the world is as futile as the task of describing the number between two and seven.


      The world is lost once we appreciate a curious feature of certain pairs of seemingly contradictory statements: if either is true, both are. Although “The earth is in motion” and “The earth is at rest” apparently contradict each other, both are true. But from a contradiction, every statement follows. So unless we are prepared to acknowledge the truth of every statement, the appearance of contradiction in cases like these must somehow be dispelled.

      See also: Nelson Goodman, Twisted Tales; Or, Story, Study, and Symphony

      Nelson Goodman is professor emeritus of philosophy at Harvard University. He has written Of Mind and Other Matters, Ways of Worldmaking, Problems and Projects, Languages of Art, The Structure of Appearance, and Fact, Fiction, and Forecast. His most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry is “How Buildings Mean” (June 1985). Catherine Z. Elgin is associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is the author of With Reference to Reference and is currently writing a book entitled Philosophy without Foundations.

    • 576Richard McKeon
    • We have met in this conference to discuss “critical pluralism.” It will be a conference or discussion if the participants present different conceptions of critical pluralism based on different conceptions of criticism. Pluralism will enter the discussion in two ways: in the plurality of statements, which will be easy to recognize, and in the plurality or identity of what the statements are about, which will be problematic. There are three possible conclusions to which the discussion may lead. Some of the participants may argue that only one of the opposed statements is about criticism and that the others may be about the work, but do not treat it as a literary work; these participants may so deny the possibility of critical pluralism. Some may present different modes of critical interpretation of a literary work and argue that they are different interpretations of the same work; these participants may recognize no need to differentiate different aspects in the work to which they interpretations are relevant. Finally, some may argue that the different modes of criticism apply to different aspects of the work which should be named differently and be treated by different methods, and which should be considered distinct objects of interpretation.

      The variety of critical methods and the variety of objects to which those methods can be applied are apparent when the reflexive relations between the pluralism of the interpretation of books and the pluralism of the circumstances and the matters that condition and constitute books are examined in a paradigm of possible forms and matters related to each other paradoxically. Many of the recurrent pairs of terms joined and differentiated in the literature of criticism (among them art and nature, and poetry and philosophy) are related paradoxically.

      See also: Richard McKeon, Arts of Invention and Arts of Memory: Creation and Criticism

      Richard McKeon was the editor of The Basic Works of Aristotle, coeditor of Peter Abailard, Sic et Non: A Critical Edition, and author of Thought, Action, and Passion. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “Arts of Invention and Arts of Memory: Creation and Criticism” (June 1975), “Canonic Books and Prohibited Books: Orthodoxy and Heresy in Religion and Culture” (Summer 1976), and “Pride and Prejudice: Thought, Character, Argument, and Plot” (Spring 1979).

    • 597Critical Response I: Derek Longhurst
    • Is Rabinowitz seriously suggesting that his “rules” of reading are equally applicable to the analysis of British and American forms of popular writing and their readerships between 1920 and the 1960s? Is he seriously suggesting that Gone with the Wind, for example, would be “read” in the same way and for the same meanings in the southern states, the northern states, in Yorkshire and London? In this particular case the issue of cultural reproduction is also crucial—the complex relations between the book and film “texts” and readerships for both. Is the book now read “through” the film and the mythos of Hollywood? Can the novel’s “history” of the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction be seen in relation to experience of the Depression on the one hand and to dominant historical discourses of the period privileged within American educational institutions on the other?2

      Or, if we take a British example like A. J. Cronin, whose work was regarded as both “serious” and “popular” in the late 1930s, what happens to Rabinowitz’s distinction? Clearly, Cronin’s fiction is not “acceptable” in the literary canon but his example illustrates the weakness of any critical analysis of the popular rooted in “literary” assumptions. Very important questions are raised by the commercial success of The Citadel, not among “the people” in any generalized sense but among specific constituencies of professional, middle-class readerships in both New Deal American and in Britain during a period of history remarkable for the regrouping of the forces of social-democratic consensus politics—an alliance between “sympathetic” fractions of the professional middle class and “the people” which culminated eventually in the postwar Labour party election victory. Thus readers are not only readers, and the processes of reading—especially perhaps of popular fiction—are not reducible to abstract rules which exclude all considerations of cultural=political institutions and discourses.


      2. This example is partly indebted to discussion with Greg Gaut and Jane P. Tompkins during a University of Minnesota Conference, “On the Social Edge” (25-27 April 1985).


      Derek Longhurst is principal lecturer and course leader in communication studies at Sunderland Polytechnic and general editor of the forthcoming series Culture and Popular Fiction. His publications include chapters in Re-Reading English and An Introduction to Contemporary Cultural Studies. He is currently working on a book about the political thriller.

    • 601Peter J. Rabinowitz
    • Derek Longhurst’s rhetorical strategies don’t leave me much room to maneuver. By constructing my essay in such a way that we are opponents, he offers only two choices: I can recant or enter into battle. Actually, I would rather do neither; I agree with most of what he says and would like a chance to explore those points where we differ. But in order to do that, it is first necessary to see where our differences really lie; and Longhurst’s response does not make it easy.

      Granted, some of his criticisms are sound. He is right that I use the word “we” too loosely and that I sketched out my argument on an extremely abstract level, which resulted in, among other things, a blurring of the differences between American and British literature. But more often than not, Longhurst attacks me for taking positions that I do not in fact hold. For instance, he suggests that I believe the categories “popular” and “serious” to be fixed, and that my scheme would therefore shatter when confronted with a text like The Citadel, which was regarded as “both ‘serious’ and ‘popular.’ ” Yet my essay was intended precisely to offer a way to talk about such cases—of which The Glass Key is one—and while my solution may have its flaws, the rigidity of categories that Longhurst attacks it for is surely not one of them.


      Peter J. Rabinowitz is associate professor of comparative literature at Hamilton College. He is the author of Before Reading (forthcoming), a book about the conventions of reading, and is also active as a music critic for such publications as Fanfare and Ovation. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are “Truth in Fiction: A Reexamination of Audiences” (Autumn 1977), “Who Was That Lady? Pluralism and Critical Method” (Spring 1979), and “The Turn of the Glass Key: Popular Fiction as Reading Strategy” (March 1985).

    • 605James L. Battersby and James Phelan
    • Hirsch’s revision results from his attempt to think through the difficult question that underlies the whole essay: How does the movement of time and circumstance affect the stability of meaning? The first part of his answer is that the relation between original meaning and subsequent understanding or applications of that meaning is analogous to the relation between a concept and its extension. For example, if he reads Shakespeare’s sonnet 55 (“Not marble nor the gilded monuments”) and applies it to his beloved, and one of us reads it and applies it to his beloved, “that does not make the meaning of the sonnet different for us, assuming that we both understand (as of course we do) that the text’s meaning is not limited to any particular exemplification but rather embraces many, many exemplifications” (p. 210). That is, the sonnet has a status analogous to that of the concept “bicycle,” and the two applications have a status analogous to that of a three-speed and a ten-speed bicycle. Whereas Hirsch formerly considered such exemplifications (for that is what these, though not all, applications are) part of a text’s significance, he now considers them part of its meaning. This revision indicates that for Hirsch meaning is not the product of a consciousness producing an intrinsic genre but of a consciousness communicating something broader and more general than an intrinsic genre—an intention-concept that can have numerous extensions or exemplifications, including many that the originating consciousness could not have anticipated. Formerly, Hirsch used intrinsic genre to describe that sense of the whole which governed the horizon of developing meaning and which, when the work was completed—when all the blanks were filled in—gave the work its specific determinate meaning. That is, determinacy of meaning was in large part a function of narrowing the class of implications; when the work was completed, the class of implications was restricted to those synonymous with expressed meaning. In short, in the old theory, meaning-intention is a “narrow,” not a broad “concept.”


      James L. Battersby, professor of English at Ohio State University, is the author of Rational Praise and Natural Lamentation: Johnson, Lycidas, and Principles of Criticism and Elder Olson: An Annotated Bibliography. He is currently at work on a study of the relationship between “thought” and structure in various genres. James Phelan is associate professor English at Ohio State University and the author of Worlds from Words: A Theory of language in Fiction. His work in progress concerns character and narrative progression.

    • 616Michael Leddy
    • In a recent piece in Critical Inquiry E. D. Hirsch devotes himself to the reinterpretation of a distinction that he first made in 1960 between meaning and significance. I suspect that it will be a while before we feel comfortable deciding what significance “Meaning and Significance Reinterpreted” (Critical Inquiry 11 [December 1984]: 202-25) has for us. Indeed, Hirsch seems uncertain as to what significance this reinterpretation has for him. At first he modestly proposes a “revision of that distinction” (p. 202), implying that he will give us essentially the same distinction in a somewhat different form, and two-thirds into the essay he notes that aside from one change, his account of meaning “has stayed what it was” (p. 216). Toward the close of the piece, he speaks of his “revised account of meaning” (p. 223), but in the next (and final) paragraph, he opines that this account is “a new and different theory” (p. 223). Yet this is not the last word, for Hirsch concludes by talking about “this change in my theory” (p. 224), again giving the reader the impression that it’s still the same old theory, only somewhat different. But as Hirsch himself asks, “How far can an existing theory be adjusted before it loses its self-identity” (p. 221)? And as I will now ask, how well does “Meaning and Significance Reinterpreted” cohere with the theory of meaning that Hirsch proposes in Validity in Interpretation? The most curious aspect of this reinterpretation of meaning and significance is that Hirsch remains silent about more fundamental changes in his theory of meaning that his revision brings with it. I want to note three such changes, which involve key terms in Hirsch’s thought either dropping out of the argument or finding notably different replacements.


      Michael Leddy is assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. He has published on William Burroughs and Geoffrey Hill and is currently working on a study of authors, readers, and meaning.

    • 627E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
    • Professors Battersby and Phelan have presented a lively challenge. They urge readers to reject the later, fuzzy Hirsch, in favor of an earlier, truer Hirsch.

      Their first objection is that Hirsch 2 has mistaken the nature of literary meaning. Battersby and Phelan reject the view that a literary work carries a general meaning analogous to the concept of “bicycle” that can be exemplified by all bicycles. They propose that a literary work is “more appropriately conceived as … a Schwinn or even a red Schwinn three-speed with a blue seat and two flat tires” (p. 612). They object to my adoption of Sir Philip Sidney’s claim that literature provides both the general concept and the particular example simultaneously. By saying that literature does both things at once I conflate and confuse, they say, two different intentions, because, as they aver, an exemplified concept cannot be further exemplified” (p. 613).This claim reinstates the familiar New Critical doctrine that a literary concept is unique among concepts in that it can never be dissevered from its particular embodiment.


      E. D. Hirsch, Jr., professor of English at the University of Virginia, is the author of numerous works including Validity in Interpretation and The Aims of Interpretation. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry include “Against Interpretation?” (June 1983) and “The Politics of Theories of Interpretation” (September 1982). His most recent contributions is “Meaning and Significance Reinterpreted” (December 1984).